On Gaelic revitalization, Outlander, the American diaspora, and more
Although Àdhamh’s work on revitalizing Gaelic dialects and related aspects of culture goes back years, it is his role as dialect coach on the set of the popular television series Outlander that has thrust him recently into the spotlight. We are thrilled to have had this interview with Gaeldom’s vital, if reluctant, ambassador and cultural firebrand.
[Originally posted 2016 May 11 by Michael Newton]
1. Àdhamh, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey into Scottish Gaelic. How does it fit into the story of your family and your personal experience and identity?
It’s very much been one of cultural reclamation. I don’t see myself as a “learner” the same way I do when I’m polishing up my Dutch or Spanish, I see use of my language as an inalienable right for all people of Gaelic-speaking ancestry in the first instance but perhaps even more importantly than that as the domain of anyone who feels the passion for it, regardless of background.
I fit into both categories. My father’s people are almost exclusively Irish and my grandfather was actually born in Ireland. Although I don’t know anything about Gaelic among these people, going back 200 years would be enough to guarantee the vast majority of them being speakers. My mother’s people are predominantly from the Highland parishes of Caithness and many of them spoke Gaelic right up until the turn of the 20th century. My maternal grandmother was adamant that we should never have lost the language, that it was ours and that we should really have been speaking it to one another instead of English. She talked of her father’s irritation that his own father never passed it on and encouraged me to bring it back.
Although I enjoy speaking English and happily make use of it as a tool to communicate with the rest of the world, I have no spiritual or cultural connection to it whatsoever. Gaelic is how I connect with a higher purpose in life and what keeps me on the straight and narrow…. most of the time! I find if I remain true to what the language needs, I tend to get what I need out of life. This pattern has been remarkably consistent and hasn’t failed me yet.
The way my children are brought up is starkly different to my own early life. Neither of my parents had any great interest in music or culture and certainly not in anything Scottish. They were “nominally British” I suppose you could say and had no patriotic feelings of any kind for Scotland or her history, preferring to subscribe for the most part to bland concepts of progress and modern living. Apart from my grandmother’s encouragement to take up the Gaelic, I have no idea where my own deep connection and sense of duty to my land and people comes from. Learning Gaelic to complete fluency has deepened that feeling astronomically and speaking nothing but Argyll Gaelic with my children has given me a sense of what can only be described as sacred purpose which I can see replicating itself in them, the next generation.
2. What motivated you to not only master Scottish Gaelic, but a dialect which has been virtually extinct for a generation?
I was brought up in Argyll and it’s impossible not to call it home despite having been schooled in Glasgow and living in the city currently. When I began learning Gaelic in earnest I hadn’t been home in the best part of ten years and so I pursued knowledge of the Caithness dialect of my mother’s people, evidence for which was unfortunately too thin on the ground to get far. I retain a good knowledge of its salient features and a cursory command of it on a conversational level, albeit with the gaps filled in by the MacKay Country dialect!
However the minute I came back home to Argyll in 2009, I was struck down with the most overwhelming sense of homesickness, of being back where I belonged in the Cowal peninsula and realised there and then that I had to find out exactly how the people of that area spoke and bring up my children with the dialect, giving it a respect it had not received in 100 years.
The incredible thing was that despite having no family connection to the area whatsoever, I inadvertantly married a descendant of the MacKellars of Mid-Argyll and so the family connection for my children is very real. We had been speaking the dialect amongst ourselves for some three years before this was even discovered. Talk about fate. Their 4x great-grandfather had been the ferryman on the Crinan Canal!
The general motivation for learning a dialect, all talk of home and ancestry aside, was a much simpler one. Once I had begun to speak Gaelic fluently, I looked around Scotland and saw the natural speech of the people dying off and being replaced by a bland “book Gaelic” or “Mid-Minch” as they call it. Learners were picking this up –don’t get me wrong, great start! – but then going no further, meaning that children in GME and adult learners were linguistically alienated from the actual native speakers on the ground. I felt that Gaelic was essentially “copying English” and that if there wasn’t an alternative offered, we would lose everything that actually made it distinct, and if so, what point saving it?
I made it my business to speak exactly like the old people of the Dalriada dialect area and as I learned their idioms and expressions and accent, I learned also their mannerisms until both language and temparament while speaking it became set in. I have essentially “gone native” and see my right to the language as implicit. “Use it or lose it” they say. I would amend that to “use it or let those who do get on with it”.
3. What has changed in your perceptions and outlook since you began your adventures in Gaelic? Does it change the way you see Scotland, Britain and the world? How?
Without a shadow of a doubt, yes. I was once a very frustrated nationalist, feeling alienated from my country, land and languages, having had to learn Scots from scratch too nevermind Gaelic. The closer I have gone to the heart of the Gaelic mindset, the less frustrated I have felt. I still believe implicitly in the right of a people to govern themselves and in my heart I am as red-hot a nationalist as I ever was, but because I have made it my business to pursue the more culturally rewarding aspects of discovering who I am and where I fit into my country, I am much less frustrated; even after the devastating blow that was a lost referendum, I still feel my purpose in life has not changed.
Scotland lacks self-respect because she lacks self-knowledge, something that was ruthlessly stripped from her during the years following the Jacobite era. Learning Gaelic to fluency is a way in which we can reconnect with a yet living vein that stretches back into the mists of time – before we began furiously writing everything down – to when people had long memories and suffered no cultural dislocation. In my experience, learning the language partially assuages the legacy of empire, the crushing weight of longstanding British homogenisation. It is a cure in the old sense, if not an actual antidote.
4. Do you see many others undergoing a similar journey and transformation? Why or why not?
No, I don’t, to put it simply. I’m not entirely sure why this is. I think in general people don’t like the idea of putting themselves on display as an example, they prefer to just play their own small part and perhaps to an extent are more readily willing to compromise than I am. Often I’m sure that leaves people in good stead, but in my opinion, there is no room for any kind of compromise when it comes to the language. It’s precious or it’s not. There is no in between. The British institutions that ensured its downfall spared no expense in bringing this about. The revival needs an equally robust approach.
Despite this, I actually have no desire whatsoever to be in the public eye. I am at my most comfortable wandering the moors of Argyll with nothing but the sound of lapwings and my children’s Gaelic in my ears. But there’s a job to be done; the language deserves everything thrown at its survival and it needs people to lead by example, to be brave, perhaps even haughty in their defence of what matters, just as our ancestors were. That alone is going to work in the long term.
5. Have you seen much interest in your work and support for it – and for Gaelic more generally – coming from the US? If so, how are people making the connection? What do you make of the “Outlander effect”?
Outlander has been fantastic. It was great fun to work on despite being very challenging in terms of placing the language where it really deserved to be under the unnerving time constraints of a Hollywood shoot. The fan reaction is nothing short of sensational, but it is only a start. Now that the language has acquired a rightful position of respect, it is time to make sure that people coming to it aren’t disappointed by the reality that they find.
The standard should not be set by those who haven’t yet learned how the culture operates, but at the very least, we need to ensure that the people who actually matter, those who are genuinely loyal to the language and not to some English-riddled, cardboard cut-out of her are supported to the hilt to maintain her health in the years to come. It’s time to stop spitting the dummy about how we are being “characterised” and get on with the job at hand, which to get down to brass tacks amounts to reintroducing a strong concept of the worth of inter-generational transmission among those who can yet speak the language naturally and fluently, and their children.
6. Do you think Americans should be interested in Scottish Gaelic? How might a knowledge of the language inform their understanding of their Highland heritage and ancestors? Why does that matter?
I think this matters massively in order to tone down the tartan fanfare that exists as people seek to reconnect with Scottish ancestry and culture. There’s nothing inately wrong in wearing a kilt whatsoever, it’s a cracking garment, but Scottishness need not be a uniform to be put on and taken off again. Learning Scottish Gaelic would gift Americans of Scottish descent the very connection it gave me and trust me when I say: pursue it far enough and you will reach the heart if you stay loyal to the language and not the stipulations of those in positions of perceived authority. Do not copy the odious bureaucracy we have on this side of the Loch which while well-intentioned does little in real terms but stifle the tongue into an Anglicised straight-jacket.
Be free! Be independent! Back the Nova Scotians and use the acute accent! Say Gaelic like it’s spelt! Ignore the pedants! And as you do that, strapping on your kilt for an event will become far more meaningful as part of a culturally authentic identity rather than what some Scots see – and it’s difficult to blame them – as a tokenistic sideshow.
7. How do you think Americans can engage meaningfully with Scottish Gaelic culture and tradition? Do you think that it’s possible for people in the US to contribute to the efforts to sustain Scottish Gaelic in Scotland and on this continent? What might be the most effective ways of doing so?
I think it’s very possible for Americans to contribute to our efforts and here’s one of the ways how: quite frankly, we really lack passion over here. It would make you weep if you knew just how apathetic many people are. The fair number trudge along slavishly following the pronouncements of academic institutions and quangos and committees -the most un-Gaelic things you could possibly imagine- and all the while, the actual language is lying prostrate in a corner breathing her last, struggling helplessly to tear herself out of an ill-fitting suit and tie.
Americans often have passion by the sack-load. I love it. I’ve been to the States and Canada too quite a lot over the last year and it always blows me away. Have that given direction by the keen sense of cultural discernment possessed by genuine ambassadors for the living culture like Griogair and Gillebrìde and you have a recipe for success.
If nothing else, continue to back us, support us, look out for things about which you can spread the word. Sometimes – like my Dalriada crowdfunder last year – a little cash goes a long way to helping those who are dedicated to the cause get another few steps along an often rough road. All the while the attention, care and respect that we receive from the USA for our efforts to safeguard our common cultural legacy is helping us to feel less alone, more hopeful and genuinely bolstered as we move forward into the unknown.
8. Tell us a little about your current projects and future plans.
Current projects include the gradual adding of all useful dialect material to www.dalriada.scot so that our Gaelic can be learned from anywhere in the world –certainly a way that folks in the States can contribute to the struggle!
In terms of music, I have been working on a collection of Gaelic classics with a folk-rock / Americana twist for the last 6 or 7 years. The songs sound fantastic, but it’s finding the time to arrange them with a band that’s proving difficult with a full-time job and 4 kids!
I am working on a documentary about my life’s work towards reviving the Dalriada Gaelic dialect with B4Films, something which is very exciting. We are currently on the hunt for more funding but have strong interest from some great media outlets and hope to get started in earnest later in 2016.
Myself and my family hope to move into a new house sometime in the New Year and part of the freedom of having a little more space will be the ability to finally take on an apprentice in the Leanne Hinton model who can accompany myself and the kids on mundane daily activities and learn to speak the dialect precisely so we can finally begin to look to the future. There are one or two sparky young things who have been earmarked for the duty, but we’ll need to see whether we can feasibly make it happen by next year. The prospect is immensely exciting!
I am also still working away single-handedly at DROITSEACH attempting to rouse interest in our other Gaelic dialects. While there are plenty of people who see their maintenance as desirable, there are at present very few who are willing to commit time away from their careers or other activities to pass their dialect on, or indeed to learn themselves. http://droitseach.blogspot.co.uk/
I am also working with Bombadil Publishing engaging with young Gaelic speaking authors to develop their idiomatic ability in the language and their storytelling prowess. Although things are at an early stage, there are certainly exciting times ahead: www.bombadilpublishing.com
Gu robh móran math agaibh!